going nowhere: twelve blockbusting nhl deals that almost were (but not quite)

Here’s Your Hat:  With 23-year-old rookie Frank Brimsek having made the Boston net his own in October of 1938, the Bruins were looking to move their 35-year-old veteran Tiny Thompson. The buzz was that Toronto might swap him for defenceman Red Horner, though both teams denied it. In November, Thompson did pack his suitcase and bid Boston bye-bye, headed for Detroit in a deal that brought back from the Red Wings goaltender Normie Smith and US$15,000 cash.

Was Bobby Hull almost a Leaf? What about Rocket Richard? What would he have looked like in blue-and-white? As the rumours wax and wane on this day of the latest NHL trade deadline, what if we ticked off some time ahead of the 3 p.m. EST finish line exploring some potentially epic NHL deals that might have been (though, in the end, weren’t). Some of these unrealized trades and transactions, to be sure, were wishful wisps in the minds of newspapermen; some others, no doubt, were actually entertained by managers with the desire (if not, maybe, the wherewithal) to get a deal done. Either way, they involve some of the biggest names and talents in NHL history.  

October, 1983

It was the Montreal Gazette’s well-connected Red Fisher who heard the word, and shared it, that Montreal was in talks to acquire Paul Coffey from the Edmonton Oilers. The All-Star defenceman was coming off a stellar season in which he’d scored 29 goals and 96 points, but Fisher had it on good, anonymous authority that Oilers’ GM Glen Sather might be interest in taking defenceman Gilbert Delorme and centre Doug Wickenheiser in a swap. Sather was determined, Fisher said, to cut back on his team’s goals against. “His long-time view has been that Coffey is too concerned with offence and not sufficiently with defence.”

Coffey stayed in Edmonton, of course, celebrating by finishing the regular season with 40 goals and 126 points, good enough to stand him second in NHL scoring, behind teammate Wayne Gretzky. Also, that spring: Coffey and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. He won two more with Edmonton before he was finally traded, in 1987, to Pittsburgh, where he won a fourth, in 1991.

August, 1980

The fact that no-one had scored more points as a Toronto Maple Leafs than Darryl Sittler didn’t matter much to the team’s owner, Harold Ballard, in 1979, as he did his best to make his star centre miserable. Trading away Sittler’s winger and good friend Lanny McDonald was part of the program. By the end of a season that saw Sittler tear his captain’s C from his sweater, Ballard was vowing that Sittler would never again wear the blue-and-white.

In August of 1980, Ballard told reporters that he’d phoned Calgary Flames’ owner Nelson Skalbania to tell him that he could have Sittler in exchange for a pair of centres, Bob MacMillan and Kent Nilsson. “So far Skalbania has not replied,” Canadian Press noted, “and Cliff Fletcher, general manager of the Flames, says he knows nothing about it.”

Sittler and Ballard did subsequently broker a peace that saw the former return to the captaincy and play on in Toronto, until … the next breakdown. Early in January of 1982 he walked out on the Leafs hoping to prompt a trade, which duly came mid-month. Sittler went to Philadelphia in exchange for centre Rich Costello, a draft pick (that eventually hooked Peter Ihnacak), and future considerations (that, in time, resolved into left winger Ken Strong).

May, 1973

Defenceman Denis Potvin of the Ottawa 67s was the consensus first pick ahead of the 1973 NHL Draft in Montreal, and nobody doubted the GM Bill Torrey of the New York Islanders would select him when he got the chance.

Well, nobody but Montreal GM Sam Pollock, who held the second pick in the draft. Rumour had it that Pollock was offering the Islanders two prospects, wingers Dave Gardner and Steve Shutt, if they bypassed Potvin, leaving him for Canadiens. “I’ve spoken to every general manager in the National Hockey League here this week,” Torrey said, “trying to improve my hockey team in any way I can and what a lot of people forget is that I could conceivably draft Denis Tuesday and then trade him to Rangers or Boston, and yes, even Montreal, on Wednesday, if I wanted to.”

Draft Denis is what Torrey did, while Montreal had to settle for dropping down to select Bob Gainey, eighth overall. Pollock pushed hard for that Wednesday trade, reportedly upping his pre-draft offer for Potvin to five prospects, including Shutt and Gardner. Torrey’s answer was the same: no go.

April, 1970

Chicago’s playoffs came to a skidding halt that year: the Black Hawks lost in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, falling in four straight to the eventual champions from Boston. The Black Hawks had barely packed up their sticks for the year when Bill Gleason of Chicago’s Sun-Times broke the story that the team’s management was intent on shipping out one of the team’s — well, Gleason’s word was superplayers, which is to say left winger Bobby Hull or centre Stan Mikita.

This had been decided before the playoffs, Gleason said. Hull was the likelier to go, he maintained: he was not only the more marketable, but “had given management more trouble.” Gleason and his Chicago hockeywriting brethren agreed: Hull was headed to Toronto. “That’s a natural trade,” Gleason felt. “Bobby is an Ontarioan and he would restore the glamour that has been missing from Maple Leaf Gardens.

Speculative or not, this news caused something of a stir thereabout. At 31, Hull had been a Black Hawk for 13 seasons. In four of those, he’d scored 50 goals or more. He’d won a Stanley Cup, three Art Ross Trophies, two Harts, and a Lady Byng. Nine times he’d been voted to the NHL’s 1st Team All-Star.

Toronto Daily Star columnist Milt Dunnell couldn’t confirm or deny the rumour, but he thought a trade for Hull made sense. Hull was a superstar, and popular in Toronto, and the Leafs were interested in shaking up their roster. Centre Mike Walton was available. The Leafs might even be willing to deal their star, Davey Keon, who was in line for a big pay raise, and didn’t get along with coach John McLellan.

And Chicago GM Tommy Ivan wasn’t exactly denying … well, anything. “I can’t make any comment now on trades,” he said. “Is the report about Bobby far-fetched? Well, nothing is far-fetched these days.”

A reporter who tracked Hull down heard this: “I’ll play hockey as long as I can and it doesn’t much matter where. After 13 years, if they want to jack me around like this, it’s their prerogative.”

Subsequent dispatches from Chicago described a conversation between the GM and his star. “Should I pack my bags,” Hull asked Ivan. Answer: “Don’t be silly.”

And so Hull remained a Hawk: he played two more seasons in Chicago before making his million-dollar leap to the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets. As a writer wrote in 1970: “His hatchet with the Chicago management was buried, perhaps in a shallow, well-marked grave.”

May, 1963

It was a near run thing in 1963 when Kent Douglas of the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Calder Trophy to become the first ever defenceman to win the award for the NHL’s best rookie. When the balloting showed that Douglas had pipped Detroit blueliner Doug Barkley by 100 points to 99, the Red Wings asked for a recount. The verdict the second time around? The NHL found that though Douglas’ victory was slimmer than originally thought — 99.4 points to 99.2 — he’d still won.

That same off-season May, Douglas found his way back into the news when, talking to a reporter about rumours that Montreal’s 32-year-old star left winger Boom-Boom Geoffrion was on the trading block, he spilled what seemed like surprising beans. “It looks like he’ll be joining us,” Douglas said. Montreal was interested in several Leafs, Douglas added, though he wouldn’t which of his teammates he thought might soon be Canadiens.

For his part, Geoffrion was on what was being touted as a “goodwill tour” of Canada. He’d already addressed the trade rumours in Saskatoon, before Douglas spoke up, saying that, yes, he was aware that he was supposed to be upping stakes for Boston or Toronto but, no, he hadn’t heard anything from Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke. Geoffrion seemed to think that it might be Montreal’s management spreading the gossip.

“Maybe they are trying to needle me to try to get back into form,” Geoffrion told Eric Wesselby from the local Star-Phoenix. “I fell off in production after the 50-goal season of 1960-61, but 23 goals a season isn’t a bad record. I think that scoring 20 goals in an NHL season is equivalent to batting .300 in the majors. And how many players hit .300 for a season?”

Geoffrion had reached British Columbia by the time he heard what Kent Douglas was saying back on the east coast. “I’ll believe it when I hear it,” he said in Vancouver, “— from the Montreal officials.” Of Douglas, he had this to say, in Victoria: “He’s only been in the league one year and he knows more than I do.”

At the NHL’s summer meetings in June, Canadiens’ personnel director Sam Pollock didn’t deny that Geoffrion might be on the move. Maybe he would have been, too, if the right deal had come along. As it was, Geoffrion played one more season with Montreal, scoring 21 goals, before retiring in 1964. When he unretired, in 1966, it was with the New York Rangers, for whom he played a further two seasons.

February, 1952

Toronto won the 1950-51 Stanley Cup with Al Rollins and Turk Broda sharing the net, but by early 1952 Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe, unhappy with that pair, was pursuing Harry Lumley of the Chicago Black Hawks. His first offer to Hawks’ GM Bill Tobin: Rollins, centre Cal Gardner, and defenceman Bill Juzda. When that didn’t take, he proffered a couple of defencemen, Gus Mortson and Hugh Bolton, along with minor-league goaltender Gil Mayer.

That didn’t work, either. Smythe did eventually get his man, in September of ’52, with Lumley heading to Toronto in trade for Rollins, Mortson, Gardner, and right winger Ray Hannigan. Lumley couldn’t help the Leafs win a Stanley Cup, but he did earn a Vézina Trophy in 1954, along with a pair of selections to the NHL’s 1stAll-Star Team, in 1953-54 and 1954-55.

January, 1950

Toronto coach (and assistant GM) Hap Day was categorical in quashing a rumoured deal by which the Stanley Cup champions would have sent wingers Howie Meeker and Bill Ezinicki to Chicago for left winger Doug Bentley: no. Two years earlier, in 1948, Montreal coach Dick Irvin went out of this way to deny that his team was trying to send defenceman Kenny Reardon to Chicago for Bentley.

February, 1949

Conn Smythe was in Florida for a winter’s respite when the rumour reached him — just how it travelled, or with whom it originated, I can’t say. At the time, reporters on the Leafs beat didn’t seem to know, either. What mattered was that the chief Leaf believed that Montreal might just be willing to sell the great Maurice Richard and that if so, Toronto needed to be at the front of the line. With Toronto headed to Montreal for an early February meeting with the Canadiens, Smythe told his coach, Hap Day, to take his cheque-book and wave it at Frank Selke.

Sounds incredible, not to mention implausible, but the Leafs were all in. “Maple Leaf Gardens has never been close with a buck,” Day told The Globe and Mail’s Jim Vipond, “and I have explicit instructions to meet any price mentioned for Richard’s hockey services. We consider Richard the greatest right winger in the major league, if not the greatest player.”

Dream On: While it lasted, Toronto newspapers enjoyed the idea that Richard might be lured to the blue-and-white.

He’d called Selke to set up a meeting. His last word before he climbed the train for Montreal: “I hear that Selke told Montreal newsmen he would not consider any kind of deal for Richard, yet he has not barred the door to further discussions with me.”

Toronto’s interest in Richard met with nothing but derision in Montreal. “Toronto’s retarded bid,” Gazette columnist Dink Carroll called it in the not-so-sensitive parlance of the day. “All the money in Toronto wouldn’t buy him,” Selke scoffed, in unwitting echo of other scorn, in another time — you’ll get to it, if you keep going to the end. “In other words, no matter what Leafs offered, he’s not for sale.” If, on the other hand, Toronto was interested in selling, Selke announced a spoofing interest in buying Max Bentley, Bill Ezinicki, Harry Watson, and Garth Boesch.

“Propaganda,” Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin proclaimed. “All this is merely an attempt to upset my boys on the eve of a game.”

The Leafs ended up winning that one, 4-1 — so maybe it worked. Montreal management continued to ridicule the Leafs’ presumption. The following week, after the teams tied 2-2 in Toronto, the Gazette was only too pleased to report a phone conversation between Irvin and Selke. Richard had played an outstanding game, the coach reported. “The Rocket got two goals last night. Ask Conn Smythe how much he’ll pay for him now.”

Selke’s reply: “Don Metz got two goals, too. Ask Smythe how much he wants for Metz.”

November, 1947

The deal that sent centre Max Bentley and winger Cy Thomas to Toronto was the biggest in NHL history at the time, with Chicago getting back a full forward line in Gus Bodnar, Bud Poile, and Gaye Stewart along with defencemen Ernie Dickens and Bob Goldham. Later, Leafs’ GM Conn Smythe confided that just before getting Bentley, he’d been trying to pry defenceman Doug Harvey away from Montreal, offering Stewart straight up in a one-for-one deal.

October, 1933

The Boston Globe reported that there was nothing to the rumour that GM Art Ross was angling to trade swap right wingers and send captain Dit Clapper to Toronto for Charlie Conacher. Victor Jones was on the case: “Charlie, a great athlete, has a stomach ailment which doesn’t make him an A-1 risk.”

April, 1929

Reports had Montreal’s superstar centre Howie Morenz heading to Boston, with defenceman Lionel Hitchman and US$50,000 coming north; Canadiens’ GM Cecil Hart sharply denied it. “It looks like a deliberate effort to create discord in the team,” Hart said. “Put this down: Morenz won’t be sold to anybody. He will finish his professional hockey career where he started it, with the Canadiens.”

He was right, though Morenz did go on a bit of an odyssey in the mid-1930s, returning to Montreal for one last season before his career came to its sudden end in 1937.

A rumour in 1933 had Morenz going to Chicago for goaltender Charlie Gardiner, whom Canadiens’ GM Leo Dandurand admitted to coveting in a bad way. Like Hart before him, Dandurand vowed that Morenz (and teammate Aurèle Joliat, too) would never play for any team but Montreal. The following year, Montreal’s Gazettelearned from “a reliable source” that Morenz was Chicago-bound in exchange for right wingers Mush March and Lolo Couture. The actual deal took a few more months to consummate saw Morenz go to Chicago with goaltender Lorne Chabot and defenceman Marty Burke for right wing Leroy Goldsworthy, and defencemen Lionel Conacher and Roger Jenkins.

January, 1929

Howie Morenz had a bad knee, and Eddie Shore an ailing ankle, so when Canadiens visited Boston early in 1929, both teams had to do without their marquee players. The game ended in an underwhelming 0-0 tie with press reports noting that Montreal appeared “weakened” while the Bruins lacked “their usual dash.” The crowd of 15,000 did get some good news on the night, which they seem to have received, extraordinarily, via the Garden PA announcer. We’ll leave to John Hallahan of the Globe to pass it on:

It was announced that a rumour had been spread about that Eddie Shore had been sold to the New York Rangers. The management declared such a report ridiculous, adding there was not enough money in New York to buy him.

A great cheer went up at this statement.

It was also announced if the fans in the upper balcony did not stop throwing paper on the ice that means would be taken to screen the sections.

leafs in springtime: nobody is going to give us anything

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Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan delivered his verdict on the year just ended on Sunday, when he fired GM Dave Nonis, coach Peter Horachek, and nearly 20 other members of the team’s hockey staff. Yesterday, winger Joffrey Lupul called it “a wasted season” while captain Dion Phaneuf called it “the toughest year” of his career. In a press conference, Shanahan looked to the future. “We need to have a team with more character and one that represents this city the way it deserves,” he said. If you were looking for cruel vituperative fun on an altogether sombre day in and around the Air Canada Centre, there was always Rosie DiManno’s column in The Toronto Star, which I’ll just boil down here to a dozen or so key words and phrases she used to describe the team and its effort:

unlamented, unloved, misery, big whoop, defunct, blighted, arse-over-teakettle, implode, benumbed, laughable, how many times and how many ways can you say: Oh. My. God. irrelevant, plague of inertia, ignominy, moribund, the team’s loutish character, comedia del hockey.

This isn’t the first time the Leafs have missed the playoffs, of course, even if it is among the ugliest cases in recent memory. Counting back to 1917 and the dawn of the franchise, Toronto teams have avoided the playoffs about a third of the time, 32 of 97 seasons, or more than twice as often as they’ve won Stanley Cups. Actually, in fact, Toronto is the playoffs-missingest team in the history of the NHL: no team has fallen short more than they have — though the New York Rangers are a close second, with 31 futile campaigns to their credit.

With that in mind, before Shanahan’s future takes hold, there’s just time to review what lies behind, in the past, in the Leafs’ forlorn history of not being good enough.

In 1957, Leafs’ majordomo Conn Smythe took sole responsibility for his team’s — I don’t know what you want to call it, demise? downfall? collapse? Anyway, Toronto missed the playoffs that year for the first time in four years, and just the fourth in 27 seasons. “A year of failure,” Smythe called it at a “flamboyant” press conference he felt the need to hold in New York, where the NHL governors were meeting while the Leafs played out their season.

They still had a couple of games left, but Smythe wanted to get a headstart on the post-season turmoil. He’d already left his captain at home in Toronto, defenceman Jim Thomson, because treachery: he’d had the gall to be trying to help organize a players’ association.

“Next year,” Smythe thundered in New York, “our players will have to understand that they owe 100 per cent loyalty to the team.”

He didn’t fire his rookie coach that day, Howie Meeker, nor the GM, Hap Day, though many of the newspapermen had come expecting one or both to be sacrificed.

Smythe was willing to say that just maybe the Leafs would have to change the way they played. “We have a Spartan system,” he mused, “and we may be out of date. We prefer the body … we have stressed the defensive and not the offensive … Our system may be open to question.”

The very first year the Leafs were Leafs, they missed the playoffs. That was 1926-27, the year Conn Smythe took control of the team with a group of investors and in mid-season exchanged an old name (St. Patricks) and colour (green) for news. The team had three coaches that year and ended up bottom of the Canadian Division. They played their final game at home, hosting Montreal. Only a small crowd showed up, most of whom had come to see Howie Morenz and the Canadiens. But the Leafs played as if life depended on it, The Daily Star said, and ended up winning by a score of 2-1, with Bill Carson playing a prominent role along with, on the Leaf defence, Hap Day.

So that’s a plus.

In 1930, the club wanted to send the players off to their summers in style one the games were over, with a banquet, but it was hard to organize. Charlie Conacher, Red Horner Ace Bailey, and Busher Jackson were off in Montreal, watching the Maroons and Bruins in their playoff series as guests of a “Toronto hockey enthusiast,” while back in Toronto, the rest of the team was packing up for home. I don’t know whether they ever got their meal, but the Leafs returned to the playoffs the following year. The year after that, they won the Stanley Cup.

Just to be keeping it positive.

It was 14 years before they ended their season early again and while there’s no good reason, really, to be ranking the years of disappointment one above another, dropping out the year after you’ve won a Stanley Cup would have to smart, wouldn’t? 1946 Toronto did that with Hap Day now presiding as coach. (It happened again, though not until 1968.)

If only, wrote Jim Coleman in The Globe and Mail in ’46, the Leafs had a goaltender like Durnan, and defencemen of Reardon’s and Bouchard’s quality, maybe a front line resembling the likes of Lach, Blake, and Richard — well, then they’d be the Canadiens, of course, who did indeed end up winning that spring.

For solace, at least, the Leafs triumphed in the last two games they played that season, whupping Detroit 7-3 and 11-7. And that had to have felt pretty good.

Still, it was time to clean out the old, sweep in the new. It was a particularly poignant day, once the whupping was over, for a couple of long-serving Leafs who’d scored a bunch of goals over the years. Sweeney Schriner and Lorne Carr were retiring — though they did mention as they prepared to head home to Calgary that they’d be happy to listen to any other NHL teams who might be willing to make them an offer. (None were.)

As the spring playoffs went ahead without his team, Conn Smythe was feeling — surprisingly? — peppy. If nothing else, he noted for anyone who wanted to hear, the Leafs had rights to and/or options on a veritable mass of hockey talent for the year coming up, 82 players.

“We’re definitely,” he advised, “on the upswing.”

True enough: the Leafs did take home four of the next five Stanley Cups.

I’m not going to trudge through every season the team failed — where’s the fun in that? But back to 1957 for a minute. It is, if nothing else, a bit of a watershed. Teeder Kennedy, 31, retired that year for a second and final time, having returned to the ice midway through the year before deciding that it was time to make way for the next generation. Former Leafs captain Sid Smith, also 31, decided he was quitting, too, until Smythe talked him into returning for one more year. Continue reading